The Story Is Starting! A Review of The Silent History

I am more excited about The Silent History app than any other app I’ve seen in a long time. Ostensibly a novel, The Silent History is an ebook for iPhone and iPad that unfolds only over both time and place, transforming the reading experience from a passive experience into one of participation and exploration.

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A collaborative project with many contributors, it is in part the brainchild of Eli Horowitz, managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s. Apparently Horowitz has brought his expertise in pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a book or a magazine into the digital realm. It is hard to know yet how successful he has been in pulling this off, as the book has only released three days of content so far:

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So how exactly does The Silent Histories work? Good question! The Silent Histories is the only book I’ve purchased that comes with an extensive FAQ section.

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I’m still discovering exactly what it is myself, but I think at its most basic it is a novel that is being released in segments. The whole story line is broken up into six volumes and within each volume, individual segments will be released one each day until that volume is finished. So far in the three segments released I’ve been introduced to Theodore Green (a new father), Nancy Jernick (a new mother), and August Burnham (a doctor specializing in Childhood Disintegrative Disorder). The book’s description says it will track the emergence of a new generation of children with a communication disorder that no one has seen before. In fact, at a basic level it reminds me a bit of the book Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear that also deals with a whole generation of children being born with unusual characteristics.

But the book is not merely a serially published novel. In addition to having content released over time (referred to as Testimonials) the app/novel also has content released only in certain places. Referred to as Field Notes, these additions to the story line are tied to a physical place and are only available when the reader is in close physical proximity to that place. The app’s full description of field notes is the following:

“The Field Reports are short, site-specific accounts that deepen and expand the central narrative, written and edited in collaboration with the readers of the Testimonials. To access and comprehend a Field Report, the reader must be physically present in the location where the Report is set. Reports are deeply entwined with the particularities of their specific physical environments — the stains on the sidewalk, the view between the branches, a strangely ornate bannister, etc — so that the text and the actual setting support and enhance each other. Each of these reports can be read on its own, but they all interrelate and cohere within the larger narrative.”

What is perhaps even more intriguing than the fact that they are tied to physical location is the fact that readers can edit or add to them. Reading The Silent Histories is in fact a participatory act.

Will The Silent History forever change what it means to be a book? We’ll see. The news media is going crazy over it, and of all the apps I’ve seen that play with the possibilities offered in new ebook technology (and I’ve looked at quite a few), this is by far the most amazing and exciting. So what is my answer? It quite possibly could change the definition and experience of reading a book. And I’m looking forward to it.

What do you think?

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